Sunday, February 8, 2009

High Performance Engines at Chevrolet

The brand new 1963 Chevrolet was running at a leisurely 75 miles/hour and I was on the innermost lane of a three-lane highway with gently banked expressway turns.  Yet, yours truly was nearly white knuckled as I drove.  Why was I so tense?   Because there was a live dynamite cap on each of my four tires! 

I was nearing completion of the Chevrolet Engineering Center driving school and the final test of my skills was to have the onboard instructor touch off one of the caps at some point on the course.  I didn’t know which tire would go or when it would occur.

Prior to making the road speed run I had been on the skidpan.  That was a lot of fun.  The skidpan was a level asphalt area some 500 feet in diameter.  It had been sprayed with a light-weight oil and then wet down with water.  The oil floated to the top and made driving on the pan like driving on melting ice.  There I had been taught the proper techniques for recovering from an inadvertent skid and how to control the automobile in deliberate skids.

Still, all the skidpan practice (at 20 to 30 miles/hour) in the world didn’t quiet my nerves.  There is a world of difference between the skidpan and a 75 miles/hour blowout in a turn!  Finally, the instructor blew one of my tires.  He picked the outside rear which is, contrary to popular lore, the most difficult to control on a rear wheel drive car.  (Front tire blowouts are relatively easy because there is still directional control via the steering wheel.)  The rear end of the car immediately started around to the outside.  I quickly counter steered but still went up track at least a lane and one-half.  The message came through loud and clear.  There is no way to maintain a lane in the event of a rear tire blowout.

I was working in Chevrolet’s Engineering Center in the High Performance Engine Group as a summer graduate engineer under the guidance of the legendary Zora Arkus Duntov, the godfather of the Corvette.  (Most people credit Harley Earl with starting the Corvette line but Duntov was the genius who made it an icon.  He became Chief Engineer on the Corvette a few years after I left to return to graduate school.) 

At the time the Chevrolet Experimental Research Vehicle (CERV) II was being developed in our laboratories.  CERV I had been operational since 1960.  Both these machines made runs on the “drag strip” behind the Center.  I remember seeing Mr. Duntov running at speeds in excess of 140 miles/hour on that strip.  There was no way he could stop the CERV in the short distance beyond the speed trap so he would spin the car 180-degrees and disappear into a cloud of rubber smoke only to come shooting out a second or so later.  I believe the CERV II eventually ran over 200 miles/hour and could do 0-60 in about 3.0 seconds.

My job was to operate a dynamometer stand to test engines.  I had a 600 horsepower eddy current dynamometer that could run as high as 10,000 RPM.  I did both developmental testing and performance proof testing on my dynamometer.  The first production 275 horsepower Corvette engine went across my stand—however, it had no water pump or fan, both of which are power robbers.

All kinds of high performance engines were developed during my sojourn there.  One was an all-aluminum V-8 engine including hardened aluminum cylinders.  It had dual overhead valves with two camshafts per bank.  Because it had one set of pushrods over the top and one underneath each bank, it was a real bear to set the backlash.  The only saving grace was that it used the Chevrolet-introduced stamped rocker arms with a single adjusting nut rather than the older forged arms that required a wrench and a screwdriver.

My favorite engine was a prototype of the 427 cubic inch engine introduced later.  On this engine we had mounted four dual side draft Webers to help the engine get better fuel distribution.  Maximum torque was 550 lb-ft at 4,000 RPM.  We mounted the engine in a “broom peddler’s special” (a very plain looking 1963 Biscayne) and put a Chrysler Torqueflight transmission behind it.  (None of the available GM automatic transmissions could handle the power produced by the engine and most of us couldn’t handle a manual with all that torque available.)  The exhaust system was fitted with a manual cutout that allowed the exhaust to be vented into the cavity behind the front wheels.  We delighted in taking the car out on either Mound Road or Van Dyke Avenue and teasing the local hot rodders.  The distance between stoplights then was on the order of one mile.   We would pull up to a light alongside a likely victim and open the cutouts briefly, signaling we wanted to run against them.  Because it was so much fun to let them think they could outrun us we usually let them stay just in front of us until we reached 60 or 70 miles/hour.  Then, the throttle would be opened and we would go by them with smoke from our tires covering them up.  Remember, this was 1963 and traffic on Mound Road/Van Dyke was not very dense in the late evening hours when we did this.

During this time Chevrolet was actively distancing itself from NASCAR and the other racing worlds so we had to find innovative ways to get field experience on our engines.  We sent some to Mickey Thompson who was trying to get into NASCAR as well as drag racing but he inevitably replaced our pistons with his and they promptly burned in a racing environment.  We put a few into marine dress and sent them to Carl Kiekhaefer (founder of Mercury Marine for you boat lovers) and his Lake X in Florida.  In one of the ocean races to Bermuda the winning boat had two of our 427s.  The amazing thing is that one of the engines broke a prop shaft less than half way out and the boat still won on one engine.

Well, as you can see this was an exciting time for a fledgling engineer less than a month away from his BS.  Add to that the fact that Jessie and I had just gotten married one week before I reported to the job.  The work was great but the living environment was not what this unsophisticated Okie wanted so I returned to graduate school and never went back to Chevrolet.  

3 Comments:

At February 8, 2009 at 3:11 PM , Blogger John Inman said...

Is their anything you haven't tried, Glen? You've written about flying, railroading, now test driving one of those fancy Chevys... the fastest I've ever driven is when I was in high school and was driving my new '66 Chevelle, leaving the Patio drive-in one night. I must have gotten up to as much as 85-90 or maybe 95 mph. It scared me to death. Mercy! You certainly are an adventerous type.

Kidding, but good blog.

 
At February 8, 2009 at 9:08 PM , Blogger Glen Lazalier said...

The fastest I ever rode (NOTE: RODE, not DROVE) was just over 160 mph on a test track with one of Chevrolet's professional drivers. At that speed the posts on the guard barriers just blurred as they went past. I think that driving 90 mph of a typical Oklahoma road of our days in Heavener in scarier than running 160 mph on a test track.

I did drive on a German autobahn just east of Munich one day at 115 mph. There were two things I had to watch out for--in front of me for the trucks in the right lane running about 70 mph and in the rear view mirror for the really fast traffic when I was passing a truck. Some of them must have been approaching 200 mph judging by the way their air blast hit me as they zipped by. With a speed differential of about 70 mph or more, they really came up behind me quickly.

 
At February 9, 2009 at 6:12 PM , Blogger Bill Hinds said...

Hey Glen - sounds like you had a lot of fun learning your trade at
GM. I drive down Van Born and Mound Roads pretty regular in my travelsd around the Detroit area in my work. I also go up to General Motors Road and by the huge test track and facilities they have up there. Now they have the Huge buildings down town Detroit and they are beautiful. 760 AM WJR Broadcasts from their "Winter Gardens Center"

 

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